It can be revealed that a place in the Cambridge University women’s reserve crew at the 2015 Boat Race – the first year that women were given equal billing to men on the Tideway – was taken by a biological male.
Sarah Gibson openly celebrated the appearance in the race in a brochure published in 2018 by Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBT organisation, described as “the first openly trans person to compete in its 187-year history”.
The selection of Gibson in the Blondie boat deprived a biological woman of a Half-Blue and of lifetime membership of the Cambridge University Boat Club.
Gibson told Stonewall: “I wanted to take part in the Boat Race since I was a small kid and I was delighted when I got the chance. The club and coaches were very supportive. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it or reach my full potential without such an inclusive environment.” It is understood that Gibson attended an elite boys’ school and identifies today as non-binary.
“Cambridge didn’t know what to do,” said a source familiar with the situation in 2015. “Gibson already knew how to row, having learned to row at an elite boy’s school. The university thought they had to accept people exactly as they declared themselves to be. Gibson only had to say: ‘I’m a woman, I’m eligible for this crew.’ There was no mechanism for proving testosterone levels. Cambridge thought they had to be inclusive, and so they just accepted Gibson at face value.
“Everyone knew Gibson was biologically male. But they thought they weren’t allowed to ask personal questions about testosterone levels, or being legally female, or surgery. They believed that was far too personal and intimate. Nobody thought that they could challenge.”
The 2015 Boat Race was heralded at the time as a victory for equality, with the women finally given the opportunity to race on the same stretch of the Thames as the men. Their fixture did not take place at all between 1953 and 1964, when the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club dissolved. They had waited since 1927, when the female Varsity match was only a time trial because racing was deemed unladylike, to savour such a moment.
“It was a big celebration,” the source said. “It was decided not to display the schools the women had attended, because they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that Gibson’s school was a boys’ school. In the end, some young woman missed the chance to have her university colours, and to be in the university rowing club for the rest of her life.
“Gibson stated it was a childhood dream to appear in the race. Yes, for you and a lot of other people. There’s a big dinner every year now after the Boat Race. This year, there were 400 people, and the oldest woman there was over 90. It was huge. And some young woman wasn’t there, because she didn’t get her chance to row in that boat after someone born male claimed to be a woman.”
Jane Sullivan, a recently-retired rowing coach, told The Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast: “When you’re in Blondie or one of the top boats, you’re part of an exclusive club. You’re allowed to get your Blondie blazer. It gives you access to this club of Blues and Half-Blues, and that stays with you for life. The woman who missed out in 2015 will never have her place in history. She won’t be part of that club. And I think that’s a shame. I feel for her.”